<i>"The Name of Our Country is América" - Simon Bolivar</i> The Narco News Bulletin<br><small>Reporting on the War on Drugs and Democracy from Latin America
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Al Giordano

Opening Statement, April 18, 2000
¡Bienvenidos en Español!
Bem Vindos em Português!

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Tracking the Bloody Footprints in the House of Death: Part II

IMAGE: Johhny Sutton: House of Death

How the Informant’s Role and U.S. Law Enforcers’ Complicity Were Exposed

By Bill Conroy
Special to The Narco News Bulletin

December 10, 2005

The House of Death mass-murder machine unraveled in mid-January, 2004, after narco-traffickers and their Mexican police henchmen targeted the wrong person: a DEA agent based in Ciudad Juárez, a Mexican border town near El Paso, Texas.

However, during the course of the prior five months, a dozen people had been tortured and murdered at the House of Death in Juárez. The gruesome homicides were carried out with the assistance of a U.S. government informant under the watch of a U.S. prosecutor and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in El Paso.

The house’s backyard, where twelve bodies were found burried.
Photo: D.R. 2005 Klaas Wollstein
This installment of the House of Death diary will take a look at the incident that led to the exposure of the informant’s role in the Juárez murder factory and of U.S. law enforcers’ complicity in the informant’s homicidal activities.

Over the past several months, with the help of multiple sources and by piecing together information from a variety of documents, Narco News has created this diary, which traces the events and background of the House of Death mass murder case.

The diary is based loosely (and at times paraphrases or draws directly from) an actual timeline of events developed by the DEA in the days immediately following the evacuation of its personnel from Juárez—after they had been compromised by the narco-traffickers, informant (and the actions of ICE agents) connected to the House of Death.

(For those of you who missed it, you can check out Part I of this series here.)

House of Death Diary: Part II

Jan. 9, 2004: ICE’s proposal to lure narco-trafficker Heriberto Santillan-Tabares across the border for arrest is approved by ICE Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Jan. 12, 2004: The U.S. Department of Justice’s representative in Mexico City is briefed by ICE officials about the lure plan for Santillan, who is a high-level operative in the Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes Organization (VCFO).

Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004

8:00 a.m.: Santillan contacts the ICE informant, codenamed Jesus Contreras, by phone. He asks Contreras to bring the keys for the House of Death, located at Calle Parsioneros 3633 in Juárez. Santillan tells Contreras that a “carne asada,” or barbecue, is planned for that day. This is the codeword for a torture/murder session at the house.

1:00 p.m.: Santillan contacts the informant Contreras by phone and asks him to reach out to his ICE contacts to determine if someone named “John Brown” is an ICE agent. Contreras has led Santillan to believe that he is in league with a corrupt Customs inspector in El Paso.

ICE determines later that the individual, “Brown,” is not an ICE employee. Contreras was asked to check the name out, it is suspected, because an individual being tortured that day at the House of Death (at around the same time Santillan made the call to the informant) had provided the name “John Brown” to Santillan.

6:05 p.m.: Two strange men ring the doorbell of DEA agent McBrayer’s home. The residence is located in Juárez, where McBrayer works. McBrayer’s wife, who is home with her two children, contacts her husband by phone.

6:40 p.m.: McBrayer, his wife, and their two daughters get into the family car and leave the house, headed for El Paso. Shortly after leaving the house, a marked Mexican Municipal Police patrol car pulls McBrayer’s car over on a traffic stop. A small white car parks in front of McBrayer’s vehicle. Another vehicle, a white pickup truck, pulls up behind the patrol car.

Men dressed in civilian clothes exit the white car and pickup truck and stand to the rear of McBrayer’s car. The Mexican policeman approaches McBrayer. The DEA agent identifies himself as a diplomatic employee of the U.S. Consulate.

The Mexican cop tells McBrayer that he was stopped because the window tint on his car was too dark. The cop then asks for McBrayer’s ID.

McBrayer complies, showing the cop his diplomatic credentials and identifying himself as Homer Glenn McBrayer. The cop then walks back to the rear of McBrayer’s vehicle to talk with the two individuals who are standing there.

Shortly, the Mexican cop returns, accompanied by one of the plainclothes individuals. The cop asks McBrayer to get out of the car. The plainclothes individual also asks McBrayer to step out of the vehicle. In addition, he asks McBrayer to disclose his home address.

McBrayer says he doesn’t understand and makes a phone call. He contacts a couple DEA agents in Juárez and relays to them the highlights of what is going down. The cop and the other individual walk back behind McBrayer’s car.

Moments later, another DEA agent arrives. He approaches the Mexican cop, now standing with the two other individuals, and identifies himself as a diplomat. However, he declines to show an ID and provides a false name: Rene Ramirez. One of the men dressed in street clothes then identifies himself as a State Judicial Police Agent, also providing a false name: Luis Perez.

McBrayer gets out of his car and approaches the Mexican law enforcement officers.

6:45 p.m.: While the traffic stop is in progress, Santillan contacts the informant Contreras by phone. He asks Contreras to get information on someone named “Homer Glenn,” whom Santillan suspects is an ICE agent.

6:57 p.m.: Contreras receives another phone call from Santillan, who corrects the spelling of the name he asked Contreras to check out, and also asks the informant to check out a second name: Rene Ramirez. Mexican State Judicial Police Commander Miguel Loya-Gallegos, a close Santillan associate, can be heard in the background voicing Ramirez’ name. Santillan tells Contreras that he believes Ramirez is of the “tres letras,” which refers to DEA or FBI.

7:00 p.m.: The traffic stop is terminated. Another DEA agent arrives on the scene. DEA agents are then dispatched to McBrayer’s residence. McBrayer and his family continue on their way to El Paso.

7:15 p.m.: ICE agents in El Paso contact the DEA office in Juárez and inform agents there that Santillan contacted the informant Contreras. The ICE agents tell their DEA counterparts that Santillan has identified three individuals as U.S. law enforcers in Juárez. In addition, the ICE agents indicate that Santillan knows where one of the agents lives (McBrayer) and that it is likely his goons will attempt a forced entry of that residence later that night. (ICE agents had a tap on Contreras’ phone, allowing them to intercept his conversations with Santillan.) An ICE supervisor stresses that he is very concerned that Santillan and his thugs are a threat to the security of DEA’s Juárez personnel and their families.

An order is issued effecting the immediate evacuation of all DEA personnel and family members in Juárez. They are taken to El Paso and provided with temporary living quarters.

8:30 p.m.: The informant is debriefed at ICE’s El Paso office. However, DEA agents are only allowed access to the informant through the ICE agents. The DEA agents also discover that conversations between Santillan and Contreras concerning the traffic stop have been recorded.

It soon becomes clear from the available evidence that VCFO associate Loya, working for Santillan, was seeking to find a drug stash house that happened to be located near DEA agent McBrayer’s government-leased home in Juárez. DEA suspects that the existence of the stash house was discovered after Loya’s goons abducted, tortured and killed three individuals earlier in the day (Jan. 14, 2004) at the House of Death. As a result of the information coughed up by the torture victims, Loya determined, incorrectly, that McBrayer’s house might be the stash house, and so he set up surveillance in the neighborhood.

9:30 p.m.: DEA agents from Juárez and El Paso met with ICE officials in El Paso, along with Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden, and decide that Santillan should be arrested in El Paso. It is suggested that the informant Contreras help bait that trap. It is then that DEA officials from Juárez learn for the first time of ICE’s pre-existing plan to lure Santillan across the border.

10:30 p.m.: The informant Contreras contacts Santillan to arrange a meeting for the next day.

Thursday, Jan. 15, 2004

10:00 a.m.: DEA officials want to know why the Santillan lure plan had not been coordinated with DEA in Mexico City.

10:30 a.m.: DEA officials brief ICE and FBI officials in Mexico City about the personnel evacuation in Juárez. During the meeting, ICE representatives stress that the planned lure of Santillan is based on a murder investigation. DEA officials remind the ICE officials that this is a drug case, that ICE does not have jurisdiction over murder cases.

10:30 a.m.: Back in Juárez, two men in a white pickup truck are shot after being stopped by Mexican cops. The victims were departing a gated residential community when they were pulled over and asked for ID. As soon as the driver identified himself, one of the cops shot him in the face and head with a 9mm handgun.

DEA sources indicate that Mexican State Judicial Police Commander Loya personally carried out the murder of the driver, which apparently was a payback killing related to the loss of a 4,000-pound load of dope. The other person in the pickup truck was shot in the mouth and neck, but survived. He is described as being unable or unwilling to provide a statement. Information surfaces later from a DEA source that indicates Loya actually was at the murder scene as an investigator, even though he is the night-shift commander for the Chihuahua State Judicial Police in Juárez.

11:30 a.m.: In Mexico City, the ICE attaché informs his DEA counterpart, for the first time, that the informant Contreras actually participated in a homicide – the murder of Fernando on Aug. 5, 2003, in Juárez. ICE and DEA representatives then meet with Mexican Deputy Attorney General Jose Luis Santiago-Vasconcelos to inform him of the truth.

1:30 p.m.: Contreras hooks up with Santillan, who has crossed the border into El Paso. Contreras secretly records the conversation with Santillan, as he details the three murders that occurred at the House of Death the prior day (Jan. 14, 2004). Santillan says he, Loya and other associates kidnapped, tortured and killed three people at the house that day, including an individual named Omar Cepeda-Saenz. During the torture session, Cepeda gave up the location of a supposed stash house (which happened to be near DEA agent McBrayer’s residence) that was being used to store 4,000 pounds of dope. Santillan also confirms that surveillance was set up in the neighborhood, which later led to the traffic stop involving McBrayer. In the wake of that stop, Loya confirmed to Santillan that McBrayer was a DEA agent. After discovering that fact, Santillan says he suspected that Cepeda purposely provided bad information in an effort to tip off the DEA.

3:00 p.m.: The informant Contreras was pulled over by a marked El Paso squad car for a traffic violation – which he had been directed beforehand to commit. ICE agents in El Paso then arrest Santillan.

7:16 p.m.: The informant Contreras draws up a map of the location of the House of Death and provides it to ICE agents.

Friday, Jan. 16, 2004

10:00 a.m.: DEA supervisors from the Juárez office go to the ICE office in El Paso for a scheduled meeting related to the investigation into the threat posed by the traffic-stop incident and the exposure of DEA agents in Juárez. ICE managers are in a meeting, so the DEA agents are asked to come back after lunch. Two of the agents decided to remain in order to review the conversations that have been recorded between Santillan and the informant as part of the Jan. 14 traffic stop. However, ICE supervisors refuse to allow the DEA agents to have access to those recordings or other evidence related to the threat against DEA agents.

2:00 p.m.: DEA supervisors meet with ICE supervisors and Assistant U.S. Attorney Juanita Fielden, the prosecutor in the case against Santillan. Fielden makes it clear that she has ordered ICE personnel to prevent DEA officials from getting access to the tape-recordings involving Santillan and the informant because she is concerned that DEA will share that information with Mexican law enforcement officials. Fielden also demands that DEA assure that the informant’s identity will not be compromised or shared with the Mexican government.

One DEA supervisor responds by saying the primary concern should be resolving the threat against the agents and that if Mexico could help in that effort, then that path should be pursued. However, the DEA supervisor assures Fielden that no information will be shared with Mexican officials without the consent of ICE.

Fielden then stresses that it is essential to identify the first House of Death victim (Fernando) because that is critical to establishing a death-sentence case against Santillan. (Remember, this first murder was reported to ICE officials by the informant the same day it happened – Aug. 5, 2003. Then, over the next five months, 11 additional people were tortured and murdered at the House of Death—with informant playing a key role in those murders.)

Fielden again expresses concern for the safety of the informant Contrereas and makes it clear that he will not be made available to the Mexican government for at least a month. The DEA supervisors are then provided with a copy of Contreras’ map, which shows the location of the House of Death.

Saturday, Jan. 17, 2004

11:30 a.m.: Mexican federal prosecutor Martin Levario and officials from Mexico’s AFI/Sensitive Investigative Unit meet with officials from DEA, ICE and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. DEA provides the Mexican law enforcers with information needed to target Mexican State Judicial Police Commander Loya and his associates for arrest. The Mexican law enforcers also are provided with the location of the House of Death. The Mexican laws enforcers then ask for access to the informant, so that he can be debriefed to help in securing a search warrant for the House of Death. ICE refuses to make the informant Contreras available to the Mexican law enforcers.

Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004

4:00 p.m.: Mexican law enforcers inform U.S. law enforcers working on the Santillan case that formal statements of some sort are needed to support a search warrant for the House of Death. ICE officials agree to allow some of their agents (not the informant) to provide such statements.

Thursday, Jan. 22, 2004

9:30 p.m.: DEA, ICE and Mexican law enforcers meet with canine officers from the Austin, Texas, Police Department to discuss searching the House of Death for bodies.

Friday, Jan. 23, 2004

10:00 a.m.: Mexican law enforcers finally obtain a search warrant for the House of Death.

12:00 p.m.: Mexican federal police secure the House of Death to prepare it for a body search. The Austin Police Department dogs pick up on a scent in several locations in the backyard of the house. DEA and ICE agents are present as observers.

2:00 p.m.: A bobcat front loader is employed to begin digging for the bodies.

3:36 p.m.: Loya contacts the informant Contreras. Additional phone calls are made, some of which are recorded. Loya discusses a plan to sneak across the border into the United States with some of his associates.

8:00 p.m.: The first body is unearthed in the backyard of the House of Death. Digging then continues by hand.

11:00 p.m.: A second body is found.

Saturday, Jan. 24, 2004

12:00 p.m.: A third body is found.

2:10 p.m.: Loya again contacts the informant, indicating he wants to meet. Loya inquires about the whereabouts of Santillan; he also indicates that he is looking into what is going down. Loya asks Contreras to change his phone number as soon as possible and to then call him with the new number.

DEA agents discover that Loya is reaching out to the informant. DEA and ICE officials discuss a possible lure of Loya to a border point of entry, so that Mexican law enforcers can arrest him. It is suggested that the informant is in an ideal position to entice Loya to meet him at a location along the border.

Sunday, Jan. 25, 2004

12:00 p.m.: ICE and DEA management meet. DEA officials ask that the informant immediately contact Loya to lure him to the border. ICE officials shoot the plan down, indicating that such a strategy won’t work and that it could compromise the informant Contreras. DEA officials suggest that Contreras at least continue telephone contact with Loya to gather intelligence. They discuss the fact that Contreras’ current telephone number is being tapped and determine that if the telephone number is changed, as Loya suggested, but the same telephone is still used, then the phone could continue to be monitored.

Monday, Jan. 26, 2004

Seven additional bodies are found at the House of Death, one of which is wrapped in a newspaper dated Jan. 14, 2004. Mexican law enforcers also find a hole that contains a pile of clothing.

11:00 p.m.: DEA agents meet with Mexican federal agents, who provide the U.S. law enforcers with photos of a Mexican State Judicial Police officer. He is identified as one of the plainclothes officers who assisted in the traffic stop of DEA agent McBrayer on Jan. 14. The informant Contreras later identifies the same Mexican cop as one of the executioners in the House of Death murders.

Read Part I of this series here.

Read Part III here.

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The Narco News Bulletin: Reporting on the Drug War and Democracy from Latin America